My Odyssey is an incredibly effective vehicle for an examination and appreciation of the most human of instruments, the voice.
I previously wrote about the Glenn Hansard quote “The voice just shows up” and the sentiment I expressed in that piece has only grown stronger in the 60 or so Odyssey shows I’ve sung since.
In many ways, the 24 songs I sing in 2020 as a 42 year old are the same as those I wrote and began to try to sing as a 24 year old in 2001.
The keys of the songs are the same. The order of the songs is the same. The words are largely the same. The chords and melodies change a bit each performance, but their essences are the same.
So I can and do use these songs to measure growth and change in my voice.
(And to measure growth and change in my Self, but that’s a subject for another piece I suppose… )
Singing in any way for 35 minutes straight is physically demanding and I wrote the Odyssey to be even more so by virtue of the range and variety of registers in which I need to sing to execute it properly.
The voice is such a sensitive instrument, so at the mercy of environmental and exterior factors, that no matter how good I get at singing the piece, every performance is an adventure, a challenge, an education, and often a humbling experience.
As I perform, in real time, I’m evaluating how my voice feels and how it’s responding to certain sections and passages, what kind of tone I have that day, how strong it is, and a whole host of other data points. The information I collect allows me to modify melodies, plan for later in the piece, troubleshoot songs that I think are going to be more difficult or take risks on songs on which I feel like I have extra capacity and flexibility.
The condition of my voice is often unpredictable. I can wake up rested and strong, do a solid job of drinking water, feel great as I warm up, but then by the 8th song I can tell that I’m going to need to work really hard to get some of the later higher notes because my voice is already feeling tired and I’ve not getting the response I want on certain passages.
Or, I can be on my 5th show in 5 days of travel, stay out too late drinking the night before, do a terrible job of sleeping and hydrating, sound like Tom Waits as I warm up (actually, that would be awesome) and the by midway through the piece I’m somehow able to hit Chris Cornell-esque notes (a slight exaggeration, of course).
This is all to say that I do the best I can with my voice, I rest it, I hydrate, I know how to sing correctly… but it’s often a mystery to me as to why it’s so much stronger and more versatile during any particular performance.
And this mystery was on display at my show at Northern Illinois University on a snowy Tuesday in February.
I got home after 9 days on the road late the Friday before. I had a busy weekend of teaching, attending a loud event and talking a lot, and doing a training run. Monday I had to do some serious and intense rehearsing for a Blues of Achilles-related performance. And Tuesday was damp and windy and cold.
So my vocal expectations for myself for this show could charitably be described as low.
I’ve also played at NIU a number of times and have a very comfortable and close relationship with my professor host.
So maybe it was these expectations and familiarity with the gig that enable (or forced?) me to relax and not think too hard about the possible vocal pitfalls but from almost the first note, I could feel that something was different about my voice. Notes in the second song that are generally tricky for me even when my voice is strong floated out effortlessly. My breathing was automatic and I could feel the sound coming out of the front of my face (which is imagery vocal coaches often use to describe correct singing form).
The farther I went the better it got, challenging line after challenging line executed with no strain or effort, each success emboldening me to experiment more with parts I sometimes have to just survive.
Suddenly I was at the end where I have to hit two high F#s full voice and then do a run down to a lower note I try to hold for something like 20 seconds.
Without a hitch.
The students applauded and I felt as if my own surprise at my vocal condition was written on my face. It was a sort of out-of-body experience where the singing apparatus just did what it was supposed to do to get the best results and I felt almost like a spectator to my own success.
The teacher in me would like to believe that this performance was the culmination of years (decades?) of vocal work and experience. The bard in me wonders if there was a divine component.
The truth likely contains aspects of both of these assessments.
Art happens at the place where a spark of something mysterious, magical, and unspeakable, gets buried in good old fashioned blue collar dedication to a craft.
Like Odysseus bedded under the leaves on the island of Scheria after weeks at sea.